The Stair-Climbing Wheelchair iBOT Mobility System

Concrete stairs and two people in the distance, one in a wheelchair

ilbusca / Getty Images 

What do you need to know if you have an iBOT mobility system stair-climbing wheelchair? How do these mobility systems actually climb stairs, and what is required before people with disabilities can use them?

Let's look at the history of the iBOT stair-climbing wheelchair, the features, and precautions for those who choose these mobility systems.

History of the iBOT Mobility System Stair-Climbing Wheelchair

In 2003, the FDA approved a battery-powered stair-climbing wheelchair that could allow wheel-chair bound people to have the ability to climb stairs and elevate to a standing position. Dean Kamen, an inventor who is well known for the Segway scooter, created iBOT and licensed it to Johnson and Johnson.

The wheelchair, called the INDEPENDENCE iBOT Mobility System, relies on a computerized system of sensors, gyroscopes, and electric motors to allow for indoor/outdoor use on stairs, and also on level and uneven surfaces.

 In 2009, Independence Technology stopped selling the iBOT, but support for existing units was available until the end of 2013. In 2016, Toyota announced plans to join with DEKA to remake the iBOT with new and enhanced technological improvements.

Stair-Climbing Wheelchair Features

The potential benefit of stair climbing for the estimated two million people who are wheelchair users in the United States is exciting. The user of the new breakthrough wheelchair, the iBOT, can command the wheelchair in different ways by the push of a button. The iBOT can be converted from a standard chair with four wheels contacting the ground, to an elevated chair balanced on only two wheels. The iBOT can engage four-wheel drive to maneuver rough terrain, go up slopes, or climb 4-inch curbs.

For stair-climbing, there are two sets of drive wheels that rotate up and over each other to climb up or down, one step at a time. The unique balancing system allows the wheelchair to remain stable and the seat to stay level during all of the aforementioned maneuvers.

Operating the Wheelchair to Climb Stairs

If you haven't ridden in a stair-climbing wheelchair, it may be difficult to picture how this works in practice. In order to climb stairs, the user goes through the following steps:

  • The user backs up to the first step and holds on to the stair railing.
  • The user shifts his weight over the rear wheels, causing the chair to begin rotation of the front wheels up over the rear wheels and then down onto the first step.
  • As the user shifts his weight backward and forward, the chair senses this and adjusts wheel position to keep the user's center of gravity under the wheels.
  • The chair ascends stairs backward and descends stairs forward, which allows the user to always be facing down the stairs.

Operating the Wheelchair to Hold Eye-Level Conversations or Reach High Shelves

In addition to stair climbing, the iBOT also allows users to have eye-level conversations and reach high shelves. In order to do this:

  • The wheelchair user shifts his weight over the back wheels so iBOT lifts one pair of wheels off the ground and balances on the remaining pair of wheels.
  • The user presses a button to lift the seat to a higher position.

Stair-Climbing Wheelchair Precautions

People must not weigh more than 250 pounds and must have use of at least one arm to operate iBOT. Good judgment skills are necessary too, so the user can decide which obstacles should be avoided in order to prevent falls.

The user must be capable of some exertion when climbing stairs with iBOT by themselves. There is a feature, however, which allows someone else to hold onto and tilt the chair back, causing it to climb up or down stairs.

Requirements for Obtaining an iBOT

Physicians and other health professionals must have special training in order to be able to prescribe iBOT. The chair must be calibrated for the user's weight, and people who will be using these wheelchairs must be trained not only in the proper use, but pass physical, cognitive, and perception tests to prove they can operate iBOT safely.

Safety Research on the Original iBOT

If you haven't seen an iBOT climb stairs, or even if you have, your first question might be, "are they safe?" How extensively were these wheelchairs tested, and did any injuries occur? To prove that iBOT works safely:

  • 18 wheelchair users test drove iBOT for 2 weeks.
  • Scientists compared maneuverability in iBOT versus regular wheelchairs in everyday situations and special road tests.
  • 12 patients navigated stairs alone with iBOT. 6 patients used an assistant.
  • 3 people fell out of iBOT while 2 people fell out of their own wheelchairs during the study. None of the incidents occurred on stairs and no one was seriously injured.

As a condition of FDA approval, the manufacturer agreed to periodically report to the FDA and document the chair's usage, functioning, and any patient injuries.

Choosing a Wheelchair

While a stair-climbing wheelchair may sound wonderful, these chairs are far too expensive for many people who need a wheelchair. That said, there are many different types of wheelchairs as well as a wide range of accessories available for comfort and safety.

Take a moment to learn about where to start in buying a wheelchair. No matter what type of wheelchair you choose, determining the proper fit is crucial (though there are many options for pressure relief since pressure sores may still occur.)

Bottom Line on Stair-Climbing Wheelchairs

Stair-climbing wheelchairs are yet another breakthrough that is improving the mobility and quality of life for people with disabilities. The iBOT mobility system discussed here is no longer made, but several are still in use. In addition, it's expected that an updated model will be available in the future. Though the thought of a wheelchair climbing stairs may leave you feeling hesitant, studies have found them quite safe when operated correctly by those who are educated in their proper use.

Since the iBOT stair-climbing wheelchair is no longer available, many people using these are already familiar with their features and safety. Yet purchasing used wheelchairs has become much more common as a way to save money. If you are considering buying a used iBOT, make sure to check out our tips for buying pre-owned wheelchairs.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.